Luther P. Jackson High School Historical Roadside Marker

According to the Fairfax County website, Luther P. Jackson High School was the first and only high school in Fairfax County created to serve the African-American community. The school was named after Luther Porter Jackson, a historian, educator, founder of the Negro Voters League of Virginia, and chair for the History Department of Virginia State College. The school, which opened in 1954, was racially segregated until 1965, during which time it became racially integrated for grades seven and eight. I chose this maker because as the first (and only) high school in Fairfax established with young African-Americans’ education in mind, this school is a significant part of Fairfax’s history. Additionally, the school’s namesake, Luther Porter Jackson, is a significant figure in the development of civil rights in Fairfax. The school was later closed in 1965 once the Fairfax School District had become racially integrated.

I believe this school not only offered African American children in Fairfax access to education, but an environment where they could thrive. Due to stereotype threat, a theory in social psychology that explains the effect of stereotypes about one’s group on one’s performance in a situation for which the stereotype applies (Steele & Aronson, 1995). This theory has been supported by hundreds of studies, many of which are focused on the effect of racial stereotypes on students’ academic performance. This threat is exacerbated when surrounded by members of a socially dominant group, especially in a competitive setting. For example, African-American students who are aware of stereotypes that depict their academic aptitude as less than that of their White peers, are more likely to internalize this stereotype and underperform as a result. This effect is even more likely when surrounded by primarily White students (placed in a competition with White students) and / or if being taught by a White teacher. In the period of racial segregation, when these stereotypes were at an all time high, allowing African American children the chance to study alongside peers of the same race and be taught by teachers of the same race, helped minimize stereotype threat.

When discussing the closure of Luther P. Jackson high school, the dominant historical narrative seems to focus on the positive aspects – the end of segregation. As a significant advancement for civil rights in the United States, it is easy to focus on the positive effects this period had on the African American people in the long run. However, it often fails to recognize the difficulties it created for African American citizens at the time (and even to this day). As schools became racially integrated, African American students in Fairfax (and elsewhere) were once again forced to travel longer distances to attend school, were once more placed schools run by White faculty, in classes with White instructors and White peers, many of whom held prejudices against them, prioritized their White peers education over theirs, and believed their White peers to be academically superior to them. All all-African-American schools, like Luther P. Jackson high school, were closed, and African-American children were forced to uproot their education and assimilate into White schools. This was (and, many times, still is) framed as a privilege given to African-American children, rather than focusing on the negative effects this had on their education (stereotype threat, moving to a new school in the middle of their elementary, middle, or high school education), as well as their self-esteem and socialization (the adversity they faced during this period of significant social change, both within their new school settings as well as greater society / communities). The legacy of Luther P. Jackson high school reminds us of not only the effects of segregation on African American youth in America, but also the effects of desegregation on them. Desegregation was not only about gaining access to larger society, but about losing safe spaces like Luther P. Jackson high school.

I believe that dominant historical narratives have biases towards what information is shared, and especially what is highlighted. We chose to focus on what was gained through social and structural advancements, rather than the sacrifices and loses that are made in the long processes towards them. As Trouillot states, “silences are inherent in history because every single event enters history with some of its constituting parts missing” (1995, p. 49). As Trouillot describes, history is provided to us by those who have control of recording, or “producing”, history. At this time, these were primarily academics and historians, the majority of whom were White, and most, if not all, of whom were educated adults. This gives us little insight into the effects of these processes on African American youth at the time, and what little contributions we do have very rarely make it into the dominant historical narrative.

Steele, C. M., & Aronson, J. (1995). Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African Americans. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69(5), 797–811.

Trouillot, M.-R. (1995). Silencing the past: Power and the production of history. Boston, Mass: Beacon Press.

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